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Sex and the City

The Visit

Chita Rivera and George Hearn give grand performances in this must-see reworking of the troubled McNally-Kander-Ebb musical.

By Washington, DC
Chita Rivera and George Hearn in The Visit
(© Scott Suchman)
Chita Rivera and George Hearn in The Visit
(© Scott Suchman)
Signature Theatre's re-worked production of the formerly troubled musical The Visit is sensational. True, this gothic tale of murder and vengeance mingled with a lyrical essay of love and loss -- adapted by Terrence McNally from Friedrich Durrenmatt's classic play -- might strike some as off-balance. But thanks to the pleasant score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, Frank Galati's vibrant staging (aided by Ann Reinking's choreography), and the performances of those grand Broadway stars, Chita Rivera and George Hearn, in the lead roles, the show is a must-see event.

Rivera plays Claire Zachanassian, the "richest woman in the world," who returns home to the Swiss village she escaped at age 17 after betrayal by her lover Anton Schell (Hearn). The village has mysteriously fallen into hard times during the intervening decades, and the desperate townspeople hope Zachanassian will rescue them. She agrees, but only if a horrifying condition is met.

In a departure from his set for the original production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, set designer Derek McLane has created a grim space, with the audience seated three-quarters of the way around a barren stage floor of drab wooden slats. It's dominated by a forbidding, prison-like brick wall at the back, two stories high and with an array of arched doorways.

While the show has its downbeat moments, Galati has encouraged significant silliness, especially with Zachanassian's entourage: two campy eunuchs wearing rose-colored glasses, two killers plucked from Death Row and liveried in finest 18th century style, and a cadaverous butler. Reinking's movement is generally sinuous and smooth, and the show includes lovely ballet sequences, such as "Look at Me," featuring younger versions of Claire and Anton (played by D.B. Bonds and Mary Ann Lamb).

Rivera makes a striking entrance. Spotlighted through billowing clouds of "steam" from her just-arrived train, she strides onstage accompanied by melodramatic, stabbing chords of music. Soon, Rivera sinks her teeth into the role of the vengeful and manipulative woman, while always leaving room for vestiges of vulnerability -- a memory of the girl Claire once was. Rivera takes her time warming up, alternately speaking and singing some of the early music, and taking it easy on movement in act one. But she is at full throttle when needed, noticeably setting the pace for the ensemble in the stirring "I Would Never Leave You" and the exhilarating and innovative "The One-Legged Tango."

Hearn's role is particularly challenging. Anton combines moral ambivalence and strength, but Hearn sensitively makes him believable. He also has a magnificent, soaring voice that thrills in his poignant aria, "I Must Have Been Something." Equally important, Rivera and Hearn have palpable chemistry together onstage, especially apparent in the evocative ballad "You, You, You," a duet they sing as young Claire and Anton perform a tender pas de deux.

The Visit didn't make it out of Chicago the last time around, and with the spectacular flameout of Signature's Glory Days on Broadway earlier this month, no one here dares hope aloud. But this vivid and eerily charming musical more than makes its case for a transfer.


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